Exploring the links between harmful algal blooms and human well-being: how and why communities take action

EPA Grant Number: RD836939
Title: Exploring the links between harmful algal blooms and human well-being: how and why communities take action
Investigators: Gould, Rachelle , Stockwell, Jason
Institution: University of Vermont
EPA Project Officer: Hahn, Intaek
Project Period: August 1, 2017 through July 31, 2019
Project Amount: $598,321
RFA: Integrating Human Health and Well-Being with Ecosystem Services (2016) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Human Health


Harmful algal blooms (HABs) impede ecosystem services and enhance ecosystem dis-services. Our study will elucidate the links between HABs and human well-being, and investigate how and why a community takes action based on data about those links. We have six objectives detailed in the research plan: (1) determine relationships between cyanobacteria blooms (CB) and nutritional value of fish species; (2) understand the impact of aerosolized neurotoxins from CB on human health; (3) explore impacts of nonmaterial connections between CB and human well-being; (4) determine factors that have impeded water quality improvement in St. Albans Bay; (5) evaluate the effectiveness of informational framings to motivate action to reduce HABs; and (6) develop nuanced understanding of how communities accept, process, and understand scientific information related to HABs, and how they feel empowered or disempowered to affect change.


Each component of our study will employ an approach appropriate to its objective and the discipline(s) from which it draws. To test hypotheses about the links between HABs and multiple components of human well-being, we will analyze the fatty acid and toxin content of fish species, sample ambient aerosols within the community, collect questionnaires about lifestyle-related risk factors for ALS, and conduct an experiment to determine if visual exposure to HABs leads to increases in stress. To elucidate how a community responds to information of the impacts of HABs, we will work with community partners to analyze historical data sources for factors influencing the failure of past initiatives to combat HABs, conduct an experimental survey that frames HAB impacts in five ways and observes motivations to take action, and conduct a community-based study of how people absorb, process, and (do not) act upon the increasing amount of HAB-related data with which they are presented.

Expected Results:

The inability of communities to effectively reduce HABs in the face of increasingly unequivocal information about the dangers of HABs is a global concern. Our interdisciplinary project will holistically address potential barriers to effective response, culminating in a community-based study of the factors determining success or failure of communities to use data to inform transparent decision-making processes and eventually action. We will publish at least five academic articles, and provide tools and for communities dealing with HABs or other complex issues of pollution and the inherent tradeoffs to address them.

Supplemental Keywords:

policy, cultural ecosystem services, mental health, values, valuation